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Stress in Solitude

Stress in Solitude


by Dr Sophie Muir

How a Covid-19 lockdown may affect your stress levels and behaviour, and how to cope.

When we encounter a stressor, we seek out the people we trust. Our engagement with others has a profound impact on our physiology and emotions. When in the presence of those who care about us, our stress hormones lower, our heart rate steadies and our breathing becomes slow and deep. We feel relaxed. In this state, the frontal lobes of the brain which are crucial for creativity, imagination, effective planning and decision-making are activated. This enables us to act effectively in line with our values and goals.

The lockdown has a two-fold impact on stress. Not only is it a source of stress but it also blocks our access to our usual social support systems leaving us less resourced to cope. Stress hormones are released, activating intense visceral sensations as blood moves to the muscles. Our heart rate and blood pressure rise. We feel anxious, fearful, restless and tense. Our frontal lobes go offline; we struggle to think creatively or plan effectively. Our behaviour can become frantic and disorganised. 

In trying to cope with these feelings in lockdown, habits such as smoking, substance use and binge eating may creep in. You may find yourself eating until you feel great discomfort or reaching for another glass of wine despite saying that was going to be your last. These behaviours offer short term relief from intense physical sensations and emotions however can have more complicated long term psychological and physical impacts. 

Tuning in to your inner experiences can help you to address these behaviours.
  • Observe what physical sensations and emotions come up for you in lockdown. Approach these with curiosity.
  • Identify the triggers to difficult sensations and emotions and reduce your exposure to them as best you can within the limits of lockdown. For example, if sitting still for too long leads to boredom and mindless consumption of alcohol, keep moving. Find domestic tasks to chip away at, people to call, work tasks to complete.
  • Replace problem behaviours with positive, soothing alternatives. The lockdown presents a wonderful opportunity to experiment with new self-care behaviours, e.g. a slow morning walk or the simple pleasure of drinking coffee by a sun-soaked window. 
  • Surf the urge. When a craving appears, do your best to observe it without reacting. Urges wax and wane; ride the wave until it passes.
Mild increases in problem behaviours will be normal in lockdown. It is a time to relinquish high standards for your behaviour and be compassionate to yourself. Aim to do your best. This may mean deciding to reduce problem behaviours that emerge rather than eliminating them completely. However, should these behaviours begin to significantly detract from your wellbeing or feel like they are escalating beyond your control, professional psychological support is available. Helplines continue to operate and psychologists and counsellors are practicing by phone and Online. Reach out. 
Article posted 2 April 2020
photo of Sophie Muir clinical psychologist
Sophie Muir is a Clinical Psychologist with a private practice in Auckland.
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